The Supporting Cast

cross blogI finally have the first draft of my new novel in. Hurray! Now I can get back to regular blogging. This week I’m discussing a story’s supporting cast with friend and writing mentor Sydney Smith.

When I told my agent that I was writing a sweeping historical saga, the first thing she did after asking about my main characters, was to ask about my secondary characters and subplots. We all lead lives surrounded by family, friends, mentors, bosses, competitors and even enemies. Main characters are no different. I give my top-level secondary players their own character arcs – ongoing personal struggles that form sub-plots running alongside the major one, adding complexity and depth.

My rule for these secondary character arcs is that they must support and supplement the main action. Challenging the protagonist for example, or getting them into trouble. Helping them learn lessons or see things from different points of view. Their arcs must conclude before or at the same time as the main plot.

catch-22A good example can be found In Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The main plot concerns U.S. Army Air Corps Captain Yossarian’s attempt to avoid dying in World War II. A subplot develops around mess hall officer Milo Minderbinder’s rise as the king of a black-market food selling operation. It provides countless connections and reflections on the main plot.

SYDNEY:-
Gawd, it’s been decades since I read Catch-22. I don’t recall Minderbinder at all, though I remember Major Major because of his unfortunate name and his role as victim and loser extraordinaire. He looked like Henry Fonda, I recall.

Yes, I agree with all that you say about secondary characters. I would add only that a secondary character must want something, have a goal they pursue, a problem they work on. That gives shape and direction to their character arc. That goal must interfere in some way with that of a main character. The intersection points are places where the conflict detonates into action.

I find that new writers do everything possible to limit their secondary characters. If they build up those characters into vital players in the narrative, the writer’s job suddenly becomes more complicated. Writing a novel is hard work. But in fact, while getting your secondary characters to add vitality to the story increases your work – you have to think about them and how they affect the main action – it also fills in that blankness that surrounds these characters. All new writers know what it feels like to have a character but have no idea what they should say or do. The writer gives them things to say, actions to perform, but it’s unsatisfying. A puzzle surrounds the secondary character, a puzzle that is solved when you give them a problem to solve in pursuit of a goal. Suddenly, the character has direction and meaning in the story. Suddenly, the writer feels energised in their relationship with that character. It’s like a character who was mute opens their mouth and speaks.

JENNY:-
secondary-charactersYes, characters need to clash. Your protagonist is desperate for a baby? Give her best friend an unwanted pregnancy. Protagonist wants to breed dingoes? Have her neighbour breed sheep. Protagonist policewoman has been raped? Have her boss assign her to the sexual assault squad. Protagonist is scared of water? Have her mother need rescuing from a flood. It’s easy when you get the hang of it.

Some other tips. Give your supporting character quirks, to make them instantly recognizable. Maybe they’re the witty one, or the forgetful one, or the funny side-kick. Maybe they’re a taxi driver who always gets lost.

Know their back story. Help readers understand the relevance of the supporting character by providing a few details about their life. This ties in with giving them their own character arc.

And most important of all, know what their function is in relation to your main character. Are they friend or foe? Are they a mirror or foil to the main character, showing contrasting choices and behaviours. Are they a false ally—seeming to help the main character while actually pursuing their own agenda? Understand this function before you start writing them.

SYDNEY:-
supporting-characters-2I go with everything you say, Jenny, except the last bit. The imagination needs time to brew on characters and story. I find in the work of my students that a character might appear in draft after draft but their purpose in the story is unclear. I never advise a writer to get rid of a character who doesn’t appear to have a purpose in the story, or advise them to foist a purpose onto that character. I work closely with the writer’s imagination and trust it the way I trust my own – even when the student doesn’t! Given time, the imagination will work out what this character is doing in the story. If the character is obstinate in maintaining a foothold despite their apparent lack of purpose, it will turn out that they have a vital function in the story, one that spins the story into the stratosphere. I love it when that happens.

A Sense Of Place

cross blogWelcome to our monthly blog chat with writing guru Sydney Smith and fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson. Today we’re talking about the role of setting in narrative.

KATH
This writing caper is full of surprises and learning curves. Even now, with two books published, I sometimes feel like I’m only just ready to graduate. From Novel Writing kindergarten.

When I wrote Rough Diamond, I planned to keep its Melbourne setting to a minimum. Why would I do this? Well, it’s about my own reading preferences. Firstly, I like a fast-paced plot with plenty of action, not lengthy descriptions. But mostly because my own taste is for exotic locations―places I’ve never seen or would love to see. Parts of the world that exude whatever isn’t Melbourne. Because Melbourne’s humdrum, right? It’s my city, where I grew up in my dull little life. It’s just an extension of boring old me. It’s all so everyday, routine, familiar. How could it be interesting?

Rough Diamond was released, and reviews poured in. Imagine my surprise that many of the positive comments were about the Melbourne setting! The setting I’d so determinedly kept vague (as I thought) with just a few snippets to place the reader: the streets of Richmond, the botanic gardens and tan track, South Melbourne market, Crown casino, Collingwood football club, the local pub. All those very boring, everyday, familiar spots. As it turned out, in my naiveté, I’d unwittingly yet convincingly set my novel in Melbourne.

Collingwood Football ClubUntil I read those reviews, I hadn’t realised―or rather considered―how enjoyable the familiar can be. In reading we relate to characters for various reasons; we share their pains, joys, experiences of all kinds. So, too, I’ve learned, can we relate to a novel’s setting and enjoy the company of familiar turf. Joggers who frequent the tan track, people queuing for those famous South Melbourne market dim sims, our love and hate of Collingwood football club.

 

Funnily enough, I appreciate Melbourne more now. In fact, I’m giving careful attention to place in my current work-in-progress, Grand Slam (working title, my publisher reminds me to add), which is set around the internationally famous Australian Open tennis tournament, hosted by my own beautiful Melbourne. My characters will spend time at the tennis and surrounds as well as thrilling, familiar spots like Southbank and Chadstone Shopping Centre (Chaddy!). And you know what? I’m feeling so excited about it, I might take a quick research trip now…

SYDNEY
I do get what you’re saying, Kath, about the allure of the exotic. But I also get the thrill of reading a novel set in a familiar place. The former is an escape from daily life. The latter makes me feel as if I’m IN the novel I’m reading. I could walk out my door and bump into these characters, pop them on the nose if they irritate me, hug them if I like them.

Michael Connelly

Michael Connelly – Crime Writer

I happen to like a good description. One of the things I love about early Michael Connelly, US crime writer, is the depth of characterisation of LA, where his novels are set. His series hero, Harry Bosch, lives in a house on the side of a hill, with scrub choking the arroyo below, scrub bearing Spanish names―that word “arroyo”, too, which conjures up the dry deserts of California and nearby Nevada. He usually spots a coyote trotting amidst the brush. The coyote is his animal, the battered loner struggling to survive in the increasing urbanisation of its native land.

Harry works in West Hollywood, a place seamed with porno shops, greasy hotels where rooms are rented by the hour, soiled junkies and prostitutes. The big Hollywood sign looms over the city, promising the dream, but it’s a damaged sign, a symbol you trust at great risk to your life and your heart.

That’s what a good description does. It gives the reader the feel of the place in which the story is set, and therefore, the mood of the story itself. The description should convey emotion. If it’s flatly realistic, it’s probably not doing its job.

JENNIFER
I’m with you, Sydney. I love good description. Teachers of writing craft often say that description is boring. Don’t you dare add more than a sentence or two on setting, lest you lose your reader. I think this rule screams out to be broken. A convincing setting helps make any story memorable. But as a writer of Aussie rural fiction, a vivid sense of place is even more vital. Readers of this genre crave a relationship with this country. They’re asking the question :what is it that makes us Australian? And the simple answer is that we come from this place. That’s our identity―the continent itself. And especially that aspect of Australia that is completely different to other places. That doesn’t mean our cities. That means the regions. That means the bush.

CC 4In many novels, and particularly in rural novels, place (literally geographical place) functions like a character in the story. It’s one of the most powerful tools that a writer has. For me, setting stories in wild places allows me to strip away the civilised façade from my characters. In Currawong Creek, for example, my main character is a young professional woman caught up in the career rat race. She has time to examine what she fundamentally wants from life when she goes bush.  In my new release Billabong Bend, a young man who’s been a drifter, comes home to the riverlands to confront his past and discover his roots. And by becoming grounded again he finds his future.

There must be balance of course. Don’t spend paragraphs describing how things look. Do what Sydney says. Describe how they feel. Use detail. Make it a sensory experience. Here’s an example from my own writing: a man is climbing a tree.

“That precious, familiar calm. Tree climbing. Different to rock-climbing. Trees lived. Even giant Pallawarra still gave with the wind. He moved. Matt moved too, away from the people and the cars and the ravaged earth. He moved into another dimension. For the first time in a long time, Matt focused on the moment. On his breath, his feet, his fingers. A meditation. There was no choice. Any slip was death.

The darkening forest lay in mysterious degrees of light and shade. The more Matt looked at the tree, the more he saw the tree. Its position, its size and form, its unique structure and balance. He saw through its bark-dangled camouflage. He saw its art. A shred of song popped into his head, even though, since Theo, music made him cringe.

‘If you plant ten million trees, none will grow like these.’

Now light rain began falling, deepening the colours. The auburns and browns, the greens and golds, the glistening, mottled curls of stringy-bark streamers. The birds of the upper canopy had long fled, leaving the forest silent. Except for the sound of a strengthening breeze, like the sea-shell psalm of a distant sea.”

And as Kath says, no matter how ordinary the place, assume that some of your readers will be unfamiliar with your setting. The smell of a South Melbourne dim sim that you take for granted, will be a revelation for readers who’ve never visited that market.

SYDNEY
That’s beautiful, Jenny. Place plus emotion plus atmosphere equals setting.

KATH
I take it back. I love lengthy descriptions if written by Jen Scoullar. Mind you, the above piece is also brimming with action and suspense, yes?

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That Threshold Moment …

threshold 2I’m really finding my stride with the current work-in-progress Turtle Reef. I’m feeling like a proper, in-charge writer tonight, but for a few years I struggled with the question – When can you call yourself a writer, or more fraught still, a novelist? I don’t mean just thinking that you are one to yourself sometimes, but proudly announcing it when a stranger asks your occupation. I do that now. After writing six (and a half) novels, getting shortlisted for various things and having four of those novels published, I finally believe I’ve passed the threshold. But when did it happen? At what point did I go from pretender to the genuine article?

Threshold 1The problem with writing novels, or painting, or any artistic endeavour is that success is not clear cut. When I became a lawyer, I got a piece of paper to prove I’d earned my title. Our society is geared to work that way. You get a certificate for everything – from trying hardest in grade three last week, to a degree in engineering. It’s not like that with writing. Years ago, a friend of mine travelled to South America and called himself a poet. He made it up. He’d never written a piece of poetry in his life, but for some reason the description appealed. Nobody challenged him. After all, how could you prove him wrong? Before long he felt compelled to live up to his self-proclaimed title. Poetry ensued. By the time he returned to Australia, fiction had become truth. He’s now a respected author and poet with several published works to his name. My question is, when did he actually become a poet? There must have come a threshold moment when one second he wasn’t one, and the next he was.

threshold 3It’s the same with novels. I make up a story in my head. I do a lot of planning, a lot of fitting ideas into three act structures, a lot of plotting character arcs. But I never know what I have on my hands until I start writing, until I start putting words one after the other. It always seems impossible to start with, I’m always a novice in the beginning.Then at some indefinable point in this organic process there is a subtle shift, and suddenly I am writing a novel. The story takes root, becomes powerful, develops a vivid life of its own. It’s most mysterious, like that imperceptible moment when a sapling becomes a tree, or a pupating caterpillar grows wings … but I’m giving myself a headache. Maybe I should just call myself a philosopher (my new made-up imprimatur) and leave it at that. Shall be at the RWA Conference next week, where for a few glorious days everyone is a writer and nobody agonises about a thing!

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Plot Thumbscrews

cross blog

Time for our monthly chat about writing, with fellow Penguin author Kathryn Ledson, and mentor extraordinaire Sydney Smith. This month we discuss plot thumbscrews.

Sydney:
I love a plot thumbscrew. This is an event where two or more storylines intersect and the difficulty escalates for the protagonist – they find it much harder to get what they want. Characters and their attendant storylines meet all the time in a narrative, but the difference is that a plot thumbscrew escalates the difficulty. The plot veers off in an unexpected new direction because of this difficulty. The protagonist struggles to resolve the conflict in their own favour. I call these tension points “plot thumbscrews” because they tighten until it hurts.

Plot Thumbscrews 1When a novel doesn’t have any plot thumbscrews, the story is monotonous and one-note. People who say that nothing happens in literary fiction are referring to the lack of plot thumbscrews – either too few or none at all. Plot thumbscrews energise a plot by increasing the difficulty. I think of what happens when someone touches an electrified object – they stiffen and are helplessly stuck to the object. This is what happens to the reader when they reach a plot thumbscrew – they stiffen and are helplessly stuck to the story. It hurts the protagonist and it hurts the reader – and the reader loves it! Good plot thumbscrews keep the reader turning the page into the small hours.

Jenny:
I’m sorry, but every time I try to write about plot thumbscrews in my current work in progress, I risk giving away spoilers. It’s a novel of romantic suspense. The tension grows gradually, one plot point building on another, each one vital to the next. I’ve analysed my whole story (as much of it as I know so far anyway) and can’t think of one squeeze point that I can discuss without giving the game away.  I’m rather pleased actually – it means no dead wood in the story. Either that or I’m paranoid!

The FirmSo, I’m going to contribute to this discussion by using an example from another book that has some similarities to my story – The Firm. In this novel by John Grisham, Mitch, an idealistic young lawyer straight out of law school gets his dream job and discovers he has sold his soul to the devil and must fight to get it back. No, seriously, there are parallels!

A scene that really ratchets up the tension occurs at the midpoint. Shortly after Mitch passes his bar exam, an FBI agent confronts him. Mitch learns that the firm he works for is actually part of the white collar operations of a vicious crime family. They lure new lawyers from poor backgrounds with promises of wealth and security, involving them in multi-million dollar tax-fraud and money laundering schemes. By the time a lawyer is aware of the firm’s actual operations, he cannot leave. No lawyer has escaped the firm alive. The scene brings together three storylines. His suspicions about being followed are confirmed. His search for answers about the other lawyers’ funerals is at an end. And his meteoric career rise is explained and tainted. The scene escalates the external conflict because he is now caught between the Firm which will kill him if he betrays them, and the FBI who will send him to prison if he doesn’t help them. It escalates the internal conflict because he is also caught between ambition and idealism. I’m aiming for something like it in my new book.

Now tell me, Sydney, is that a plot thumbscrew?

Sydney:
That is a fabulous plot thumbscrew! What I didn’t say, and should have said, in my description of what a plot thumbscrew is, is that a plot thumbscrew hands the protagonist a new problem to solve. This is a twist on the old problem. You see how Mitch now understands things better and that hands him a problem that twists the old one. In the old one, he’s trying to find out what’s going on. The new twist is that he’s trapped and has to find a way out. He was always trapped. He just didn’t know it. Now he knows it. AND he knows that getting out is life-threatening. He knows because other lawyers who tried to get out lost their lives. What a terrific plot thumbscrew!

Kath:
Well, Sydney, as you know, my problem is always that I want to protect Erica, my protagonist. Which doesn’t make for very exciting reading, not at all! So for me, writing a plot thumbscrew can be agonising. Probably more so for me than for Erica. But it must be done if we want our readers to be satisfied!

Here I want to talk about a plot thumbscrew in Avatar, a science-fiction/fantasy movie I loved. It’s about paraplegic human, Jake Sully, who is given the job of learning about the Na’vi people so they can either be persuaded into leaving their home (so the humans can mine it for a precious mineral) or, if they refuse to leave, work out how best to drive them off or kill them, as is our human wont. Jake is offered a leg-restoring operation in return for his cooperation.

Avatar 2A plot thumbscrew occurs when Jake is separated from his crew and finds himself alone and in grave danger in the jungles of Pandora. There he meets a Na’vi woman who’d quite like to kill him (two storylines clashing), but she receives a sign from their goddess and chooses to help Jake instead. She introduces him to her family, and Jake comes to love the Na’vi people.

This of course increases the difficulty for Jake to achieve his goal, which is: drive out the Na’vi or find out how best to kill them. He is falling more and more in love with the Na’vi people, and one lady in particular *sigh*, and so becomes torn, and is eventually forced to choose a side.

It’s not over yet, though. The Na’vi discover Jake’s true purpose and no longer trust him. They leave him for dead. And so, with a new mission in mind, Jake must push through another couple of excruciating plot thumbscrews to save what’s left of the Na’vi and be with his true love – 3½ metres of blue-tailed gorgeousness.

Sydney:
Well, I can see why you call it a plot thumbscrew, Kath. And it is. But the way you describe it de-emphasises the plot thumbscrew. This is how I would put it: Jake wants more than anything to get the use of his legs back. He’s prepared to do anything, which includes finding ways of getting rid of the Na’vi so that an evil corporation can exploit the resources on the Na’vi’s land. He is sent to find out all he can about the Na’vi. But when he meets 3½ metres of blue gorgeousness, he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets to know her people and like them. Now he’s stuck in a bind: if he goes through with his mission, he will get the use of his legs back, but he will lose Blue Gorgeousness and her people will be driven off their traditional lands. But if he saves them, he will be a paraplegic for the rest of his life.

You know what? This sounds like a plot trigger. Plot triggers can look like plot thumbscrews sometimes. Quite often, actually. But this looks like a plot trigger because it kicks off the problem he has to solve. That problem is not his paraplegia but his dilemma: me or the Na’vi?

That just goes to show how tricky it often is to identify plot thumbscrews, even though they arrive with fireworks detonating everywhere. When we remember a film or a novel, we will often remember a plot thumbscrew – like Jane Eyre finding out Mr Rochester is already married, and to a mad woman he keeps in the attic.

Plot Thumscrews 3So here’s one way of thinking about it. Remember that old circus trick about the strong man holding up an inverted pyramid of men. The protagonist of the drama is the strong man. His plot trigger happens when two men climb up and stand on his shoulders. His aim is to stay on his feet, supporting the men standing on his shoulders. Then some more men climb up and stand on the shoulders of those two men. Now it’s harder for the strong man to stay on his feet. He staggers this way and that. But he continues to uphold the growing pyramid of men. Then another group of men scale the inverted triangle and mount the shoulders of the men, forming a new row. It is extraordinarily hard for the strong man to hold up all these people and keep his feet. His legs tremble. He grunts with the effort. He stumbles from side to side. But he goes on holding them up because he has to stay on his feet. Each time men climb up to form a new row, that’s a plot thumbscrew. But the first two men who climbed up – that was the plot trigger.

Kath:
Geez. Jenny gets a gold star. I get to sit in the corner.

Sydney:
Reader, Kath awarded Jenny the gold star and put herself in the naughty corner. She didn’t consult me or, as far as I know, Jenny. It’s all her.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.
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What Makes A Good Antagonist? – Plus Book Giveaway!

BB14Welcome to our cross-blog, which offers tips on writing. Every month writing mentor Sydney Smith ‘interviews’ author Kathryn Ledson and me on some aspect of the writing craft. We welcome your questions and comments. To celebrate my nomination for the Australian Writer’s Centre Best Australian Blogs 2014 (and also for reaching 30,000 views on my website!) I’m giving away a signed copy each of Wasp Season, Brumby’s Run and Currawong Creek. To go in the draw, leave a comment telling us who is your favourite fictional bad guy! (Aust & NZ residents only)

This month’s question is: What makes a good antagonist?

cross blogAccording to Wikipedia, “An antagonist is a person or group of people who oppose the main character.” But the antagonist can also be non-human. It can be a dragon, a Martian, a volcano, a disease like Parkinson’s; anything that opposes the protagonist.

Sydney:
An antagonist is a broader and more complex idea than a villain. A villain acts for purely selfish reasons and does destructive things with no consideration for the effect they will have on others. A villain is wicked. A villain is unable to change and grow.

An antagonist, on the other hand, is a character who pursues a certain goal in the story. This goal opposes that of the protagonist. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy is Elizabeth’s main antagonist until after the first proposal scene. But it is Mr Wickham who is the villain, and he doesn’t emerge in that light until after Mr Darcy sets Elizabeth straight about what really happened between him and Wickham.

Villains have a role in fiction. Crime novels use villains. A serial killer is a villain. Any character who feels entitled to murder to get what they want is a villain. But then we get into a tricky area, because some crime fiction heroes, like Lucas Davenport in John Sandford’s Prey series, feel entitled to shoot dead the killer he has been pursuing.

Jennifer:
Great antagonists make great stories, don’t they? Thwarting our hero at every turn, keeping the reader turning those pages. A compelling antagonist needs to be built with the same care as any other character. Unfortunately, I often read books where the bad guy is underdeveloped, a cardboard cut-out who is simply evil for evil’s sake. For me, an antagonist needs strong motivation and has to have something at stake, ie: needs to be trying to avoid something or gain something. They must be intelligent and adaptable – worthy adversaries. A compelling antagonist must also be flawed in some way, perhaps having a weakness that readers can relate to and even causes readers to be a little torn at times as to where their sympathies lie. I also love them to have secrets. But of course the most important thing is for the antagonist to stand fairly and squarely in the path of our hero.

the-perfect-storm 2I’m fascinated by the concept of non-human things being antagonists. I’ve just read The Perfect Storm, a creative non-fiction book by Sebastian Junger, where the weather is a spectacular villain. Literary fiction and commercial women’s fiction often don’t have a clear wrong-doer, but even so they must have someone or something opposed to the hero, or else the narrative drive just falls away. You suggested to me, Sydney, that in my book Currawong Creek the troubled four-year-old boy Jack was the antagonist, because his presence and behaviour constantly gets in the way of my hero’s plans. Whatever or whoever your antagonist may be, it’s worth investing plenty of time on them.

Sydney:
I think part of the problem is that writers think antagonists have to be bad people. This is surely connected to the common fallacy that conflict is negative. A good antagonist, like conflict, feeds the narrative. As you say, Jenny, without a strong antagonist, the story falls away. That’s because there isn’t enough for the hero to do! But an antagonist must do more than give the hero something to do. They have to be focused on what they want. They have to be prepared to do ANYTHING to get it. Stories ramp up the tension and suspense as soon as the main players are prepared to do anything to get what they’re after.

Kathryn:
Like Jennifer, I’m especially fascinated by non-human antagonists because for me their elusive non-humanness makes them even more frightening than your average axe-wielding psycho. The scraping sound in the attic. The jungle and its slithering, crawling, scuttling inhabitants. The house whose walls bleed. Christine. But human or not, one thing that gives an antagonist depth of character is his/her/its own goal, and motivation for it. I’ve learned (thank you, Sydney) that it’s vital for the author to keep this in mind and, as Jen says, just as important as the goal and motivation of the protagonist. Your antagonist’s goal and motivation should be so strong that if the story were written from his point of view, we would be barracking for him!

Jaws 2Let’s look at JAWS as a timely example, where the obvious villain has an apparent goal to eat everyone in that peaceful seaside town, selfishly snatching away and ripping apart whoever dares stick a toe in that water. However, if the story of the terrifying monster shark – let’s call him Bruce – were written from Bruce’s point of view, we’d discover his motivation for that goal. It might be to avenge all the horrible atrocities committed against his family by humans. When he was a tiny sharkling, perhaps he watched his mother being definned and tossed, alive, back into the sea where she spent hours lying on the ocean floor with baby Brucie pleading as she drowned, “Please swim, Mummy!” And she in turn warning him off, “Save yourself, my son!” Perhaps even the Horrible Human that the now fully grown and vengeful Bruce seems hell-bent on devouring is the one who murdered his mother. (Actually, I’m trying to remember the story and something like this might in fact be the case.) Anyway, if Bruce’s story were written well, we’d be standing in the aisles cheering him on! We might even go swimming that summer, knowing Bruce’s friends would be satisfied with their hero’s fine work; that the shark population was now safe from the evil doings of That Terrifying Human.

So you can see that, as a writer, knowing your antagonist’s goal and motivation can really help build its character, even if it’s never openly stated in the writing. But it will surely emerge, and the reader will sense it but possibly not understand why your antagonist is a truly terrifying one.

Sydney:
I totally get where Bruce is coming from. I feel like cheering him on – except that I’m not sure I agree with someone using violence to resolve their conflicts!

Kath has made a good point, though. Whether the non-human antagonist is a shark or a tsunami, anthropomorphising it will allow the reader to identify with it. Whatever the reader may think of this practice, it is effective. Perhaps it also shows the limits of the human imagination that we find it so hard to imagine a being whose psychology is different to our own. Even when we get back to basics – what does this creature need to survive? what does it fear? – we tend to make them human-like in their responses to these needs and dreads. I recall watching District 8, a movie out of South Africa, which uses a colony of aliens to discuss issues of refugees and asylum-seekers (and any marginalised group, really). The film-maker, who also wrote the script, was unable to imagine what it was like to be one of the aliens. His human hero was terrific, but the film fell short when it came to making the alien a riveting and complex character. Which means that the issues the film discussed were let down and undermined by this shortcoming in the movie.

In fact, now I think of it, any one of us can have trouble imagining what it is like to be someone else, human or animal or alien or force of nature, when what is really required of us is to step into the shoes of another being. Surely this is one of the great services fiction offers us all, whether it’s literary or genre: the chance to feel what it’s like to be someone else.

I love anthropomorphising! And Kathryn, you almost made me cry with your image of baby Bruce urging his poor dying, mutilated mother to swim … Readers, don’t forget to tell us your favourite bad guy for your chance to win books! Winners announced 30th March.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

The Importance Of Author Identity

cross blogWelcome to my first joint cross-blog, which offers tips on writing, with particular emphasis on the romance genre. Every month, authors Kathryn Ledson, Sydney Smith and I will get together to discuss some aspect of the writing craft. These posts will be concise, to allow room for discussion with our readers. We welcome your questions and comments; feel free to respond on this page.

Kathryn Ledson is the author of Rough Diamond and Monkey Business (Penguin), part of the Erica Jewell series of romantic adventures. You can visit her website and find her blog at www.kathrynledson.com
Sydney Smith is a writing mentor, teacher and author of short stories, essays, and The Lost Woman, a memoir of survival. She is currently writing The Architecture of Narrative, a book about how to plot and structure fiction. She offers writing tips at www.threekookaburras.com. If you have a question on any aspect of writing, feel free to visit her at The Story Whisperer.

This month’s topic for discussion is:

Romance is a huge genre. What do you advise writers to do to get their novel noticed by editors and readers?

VoiceKathryn: VOICE gives an author’s work a unique flavour. Like a fingerprint, the writer’s voice, however similar it may sound to others, and however much others might mimic it, is pure and unique. But without the writer’s PASSION, voice alone may be weak and bland. Passion breaks through the monotony of stories built on formula and shines a spotlight on that author’s work. In novel writing, my passion for humour and action in stories emerges almost without my permission. As a young child I adored adventure stories, reading everything Enid Blyton and Elyne Mitchell could produce. Through television and film I discovered my sense of humour. Even as a child I understood that irony (for me) is the funniest form of humour. So it’s not really a surprise that adventure and irony feature in my romance stories. My character and her actions give them form, which in turn gives my voice its strength and individuality. And this ultimately gives me, the author, a distinctive identity.

Jennifer: I agree with Kathryn that a distinctive identity is important to any author, especially a genre author. There are two aspects to this – one is voice, and the other is branding. Developing a unique voice is an organic process. It’s more than style, or vocabulary choice, or the decision to write in first or third person. It’s the authentic expression of you on the page – your feelings, dreams, passions and fears showing through in the words that you write. It takes courage to write so honestly, and not hide behind a derivative mask. But it’s worth it, because a truly original voice will always attract attention.

brandBranding is more strategic, but it still evolves from who you are on the inside. An important aspect of my novels, for instance, is a passion for nature. This became my brand, my point of difference, as my editor calls it. We all have a personal brand; it’s just a matter of recognising it. Romance is a crowded marketplace. Your brand will make you stand out from the pack, help you market your writing and attract a readymade readership of people who identify with your particular sub-genre.

Sydney: It’s interesting that both of you identify passion as an essential ingredient. Passion for the story you are writing, passion for your characters, your themes, passion for the things you want to communicate to readers about your concerns as writers – Jennifer for nature, and Kathryn who loves humour and adventure, which is as legitimate a concern as anything. The writer’s passion speaks clearly to the reader and helps to get them involved in the story. Other things have to be there to hold the reader’s attention, but passion is as essential as technical skill.

What do readers think? Do you like reading about certain themes? Or a certain kind of romance (adventure, comic, mystery? They come in so many hybrids.) What attracts you to a particular novel in a genre?

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